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Somalia: shocking images aren’t enough

Marilyn McHarg, from Médecins sans Frontières, argues that aid groups don't discuss the reasons for food shortages

November 26, 2011
4 min read

Since the media renewed their interest in the decades-old crisis in and around Somalia, we’ve seen a surge of advertisements from aid groups, featuring starving children with visible ribs and staring eyes. The subtext to these ads is simple if you don’t donate, you’re abandoning these children and they’ll die.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is one of the international aid agencies struggling to respond in Somalia and refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. We’re also struggling to define responsible fundraising within a discourse that relies on guilt and superficial messages. Fundraising experts warn us that offering a more complex picture of the difficulties of delivering aid will lead to cynicism and donor fatigue: It’s shock value that works.

At the risk of losing some donations, MSF believes we must realistically represent what Somalis are facing, and our limits in assisting them. Simplifying the message may boost revenue, but if it comes at the expense of presenting a realistic picture, then the cost is too high.

Aid is difficult. Things go wrong all the time. In war zones particularly, non-governmental organizations continually fall short as we face massive challenges in accessing people who need us most. It’s never enough, even in the most straightforward emergencies. Of all the places I’ve seen, Somalia is among the most complex emergencies. The food security crisis is caused by a combination of conflict, displacement, bureaucratic obstacles to aid provision, misguided policies and drought. It is, in essence, a man-made disaster, aggravated by a natural phenomenon.

Working in Somalia requires an understanding of local political players, a capacity to constantly negotiate with warlords, and the drive to keep projects running despite security threats. Movement across front lines is almost impossible, preventing aid organizations from getting staff and supplies to those suffering the most. Somalis who can make the journey come to aid delivery points inside the country, or across the border in neighbouring countries. Those who can’t make it perish. Families are forced to leave loved ones behind when they lack the strength to go on.

The current crisis is the product of 20 years of war. Even before the recent drought, it was estimated there were only four doctors for every 100,000 people. Most health workers were based in cities. One in 10 women died in childbirth, and as many as 25 per cent of children under 5 never saw their fifth birthday. The average lifespan was 47 years. Drought, of course, has exacerbated the crisis: Harvests have failed, livestock have died. But this is on top of war, and some of the worst health indicators in the world, as well as high food prices and transportation costs.

Ads and headlines that label this crisis ‘Famine in the Horn of Africa’ or ‘East Africa Drought’ reduce people’s plight to the simple need for food and water. In reality Somali people have struggled to survive decades of the harshest circumstances on Earth, brought about by political chaos and military agendas.

Giving to save the life of a starving child in a photo won’t take Somalia very far. That’s not to say that donations are not important; rather, that there’s more to the story. Let’s be honest in admitting that humanitarian aid won’t solve Somalia’s problems, beyond keeping people alive for better times in the distant future. Aid is a temporary measure until more permanent solutions can address root causes, and the downward spiral can be reversed.

Donors can handle this complexity. Aid organizations, all of us, need to confront the story behind the tragic, if successful, fundraising images. Yes, we will lose some donors. But I’m convinced that most will continue to support aid, and will do so from a much stronger foundation, one that makes room for error. If aid organizations were bolder about the realism of our communications, we could foster groundbreaking levels of transparency and accountability.

Delivering aid in Somalia is difficult and dangerous, but not impossible. Provided it is executed in an impartial, neutral and preferably independent way, it will reach those in need, as MSF’s 12 major projects throughout Somalia – which are currently treating approximately 35,000 malnourished children – prove on a daily basis. But humanitarian assistance is only a rough remedy, deployed when politics and economic development have failed. It prevents a situation from deteriorating even further, but is emphatically apolitical and can therefore offer no resolution to the root causes of crises.

McHarg is a trained nurse with twenty years’ experience of humanitarian relief. She is currently executive director of MSF in Toronto. A version of this article first appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail. Visit MSF to see the latest on their work in Somalia.

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